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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Strong Coffee

This is a story a friend told me. I will describe it here by talking in first person.

The shameful Fikret Abdic's betrayal and breakaway led to a disastrous, fratricidal war between his supporters and the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. What we are talking about here was one of the most obscure moments of the war in Bosnia.

In the area of Una-Sana Canton more people died during the clashes with Abdic's forces than after all the fights with Karadzic's troupes that were holding the whole area under the siege for four years.

Because I was an excellent student in school, they gave me a very complex and responsible job that consisted of being awake night after night in order to maintain the connection with our troops on the frontline. The place we were stationed in was actually one of the Abdic's chicken factories where, in times of peace, countless chickens ended their path before being turned into delicious paste  in noisy warehouses packed with sophisticated slaughtering machines. In addition, the place now served as an Army brigade headquarter.

My job consisted of being at my desk, with various devices turned on, decoding messages received from all over front lines. The room where I was working had once served as the main office of a chicken sanitary inspector. I think I left that room maybe only a few times during those months. That’s how I recall about it. Which is, of course, wrong.

One day, to my utmost surprise, the officer in command assigned me with a new task. He told me that morning I needed to take three prisoners out with me and keep an eye on them as they were going to put some cables all around the chicken factory or our building. I accepted the assignment with enthusiasm and without showing any reluctance. It was a wartime after all and I was ready to do whatever it took – just to contribute in some way.

They gave me a rifle, an old, long piece of junk but keeping my spirits up was much more important.

The job that needed to be done was quite dull. All we had to do was to get outside the factory's fence and roll a large wheel with cable all around the place. However, one thing worried me much more. The village we were in; we were surrounded with people inhabiting the surrounding area among whom the 90% were blatant Abdic's supporters. It was like taking a tour around our enemy’s  nest.

Therefore that day I was about to leave  the green oasis of my chicken building and  enter a desert of surrounding houses full of the people who were not really in love with the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina of which I was a proud member.

Not long after we started work and had spread maybe 100 meters of cable - one guy from the house we were passing by invited us all for a coffee by saying, "Hi commander can we have these people in just for a cup of coffee, and let them to take a break please just for 10 minutes?"

Clearly the guy only cared that my three prisoners  get some refreshment, and obviously didn't care that I liked caffeine too.

That man had a nice wooden table in the summer garden of his house. "Just sit here please; coffee is coming in a second," he said.

"OK," I said, "but let's make it quick." I took a seat at the table, but I didn't allow my tree jail birds to join me. "You are not going to sit here with me, take a seat in the corner there," I ordered, pointing to a tree. It was a summertime and very hot as well; as a result, the chances for them to catch cold by seating on the ground were negligible.

But both my host and my prisoners found my decision supremely humiliating. They just couldn't accept the fact that an eighteen-year-old kid was now in charge, and that whatever I said must be obeyed.

"Oh why you didn't let them to seat here at the table. Don't worry this guy is my cousin," said our coffee provider.

"I'm not going to let them and that's it, please, do not ask me again," I responded.

Consequently, everybody had a coffee, and I had a brief conversation with the man in whose garden we were all at. He said that many of his close relatives were on different sides. I believed that story because the conflict between the Abdic's people and the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the most bizarre and tragic accidents in the history of warfare. There were so many cases where you had a son and a father being on the different sides of the firing lines.  I witnessed, later on, the case of a father who was brought up to our chicken headquarter as a prisoner of war and later was being watched over by his own son as a prison guard.

Luckily, our coffee time ended up without any more even minor disturbances except for the anger that was so easy to recognize from the faces of my three birds and their coffee savior. My not letting them sit  at that table had filled them with an obvious outrage. Nevertheless, they were silent and we had some cables to do.

The episode ended up more or less painlessly, and soon we were back to one of the warehouses full of chicken incubators.

The months passed and the most of the prisoners of war that we had held at the factory were now rehabilitated and joined the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Among them was one of the guys  who had helped with the cables, and was monitored by me that day. I started seeing him driving this weird vehicle out of which clouds of fumes rose up in the air. He drove the vehicle very slowly  while transporting the hot food. Once a prisoner, now he was in charge, together with a few other guys, of bringing the food from the factory to the front lines.

I was surprised to see him doing that. A few months had passed from our cable incident, and I didn't see him in between. He must have been somewhere else, and now he was here again holding in his arms more than a dozen of pieces of bread.

On one occasion it was impossible to avoid him. I was just coming back from a short home break, and he was there at the factory's entrance, getting ready for another dangerous trip to the front lines.

When he saw me, he said hello in a very friendly manner. He started talking with me and said that he was lucky that lately there was not much going on regarding the amount of the danger on firing lines.

"Looks like everybody is taking a break and that's good," he said.

"I agree it must have been good: Short breaks are always nice."

Then he started to talk about things in general, as people in the middle of nowhere usually do, and recalled also the story about imprisoned father and his son, the guard, and tried to tell me something about it, as if I didn’t already know, and as if we never saw hundreds of cases like this, and, among other things, he said how he saw them back then having a nice chat. 

Still in a very friendly manner, he invited me to dine with his family, in a house that was only five minutes away. I was stunned – I didn't expect this and at the same moment he proffered his invitation I recalled the way he had looked at me, on that cable day, with a look of an obvious despise and anger, after I ordered him to sit in a corner, on the ground.

I said, "Yes, I accept the invitation.”

At a quarter to seven I made my way toward his house. After I knocked, he opened the door for me and revealed a room that smelled worm and intimate - because his wife was there as well, together with their small boy. There was no electricity, the supply had been off for some time,  a pair of plain oil candles were burning. Something smelled good out of the stove, and the cracks of burning wood were promising some consolation.

We started with a coffee first, as it is usually the case. We both lit our cigarettes and not long after the first words of usual guest-host courtesy were exchanged, he said the following:

"You see, you probably know that I am one of the 'rehabilitated' and more than a few months ago I was in the factory, in prison. It was OK, nobody beat me there and there was some food for us too. But one thing I remember as particularly awful – there was one greenhorn who took us one day to lay some cables around the factory. He hardly accepted the kind offer of one of my neighbors who only asked to get a cup of coffee for each of us. When he finally did set his mind to let us get some refreshment and drink the damn coffee he ordered us to sit on the ground, in the corner, like dogs. Can you imagine the jerk? We had to be humiliated by this idiot kid.

He had told me this while looking straight into my eyes, with an expression of someone who has just made a confession full of trauma.

"Unbelievable," I said, "that guy was a real jerk," and then the dinner was ready. His wife invited us to take seats.


Michelle Gartnersaid...

Hi JC I gave you a blog award- details are on my blog. I am going to ahve to read this post later tonight after my sons birthday party. Looks good.


I bet the man who told this story really changed that day and hopefully never treated people badly again! It's quite ironic this happened to him, but a lesson was learned and never forgotten. Great story J.C., and one I will also remember:)


They lived to meet again. Lucky.

Sarah Francosaid...

this is really a great story!


Pozdrav! Evo ti jedan Kreativ Blogger linku koji me slijedi...

J. C.said...

Thanks everybody for your comments. Michelle I am now trying to resolve the issue about my broken comment form, thanks for patience.

J. C.said...

Michelle I think that I have resolved the issue about the comment trouble, thanks a lot.

Michelle Gartnersaid...

Hi JC- sorry I did not get back to you. Yesterday (Wednesday) is my day off- which means I don't get on the computer at all if I can't help it... I think it is good to take some time away. Glad to see you got your comment form fised. I wish I remembered my origial comment it was probably better then today's comment.
I really liked the story and I think POW's should be treated as well as a person treats themselves. Love your enemies and all... I did feel very pained to hear about sons keeping fathers prisoners. That seems almost shameful and just sad.

J. C.said...

HI Michelle, about the father and son - it was shocking to hear that story too, but I believe it was more about a strange twist that life could cast upon somebody. What my friend had told me is that they had a nice chat in spite of the fact they had found themselves in such an outrage and bizarre position.

Dave Kingsaid...

One of the most telling stories I have heard to illustrate the adage of truth being stranger than fiction. Excellently told.

J. C.said...

Dave, thanks so much, I do not think I deserve such plaudits but I am glad you liked the story.


Wow J.C. that was an excellent piece of writing and telling one of lifes great lessons.

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